This article is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time.
I am sort of obsessed with Mafia movies. Chalk it up to my Italian heritage—Sicilian on my mother’s side, though Mom finds most of these flicks offensive to our people. And the death scenes in the movies are a big reason for my obsession. I have little to no interest in horror films, but the amoral Grand Guignol of mob hits I find cathartic to a disturbing degree. Sure, in part it’s because the men being offed virtually always, cosmically, earned their offing. But these scenes are also—forgive me, Ma—great cinema.
I do not pretend the following list is exhaustive or definitive. These five scenes come from just three movies, all released during my lifetime. I’m egregiously ignoring the fine mobster oeuvres of Golden Age directors William Wellman, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, and John Huston, as well as the more modern work of Brian De Palma, Sergio Leone, Quentin Tarantino, and Michael Mann. It even leaves out my editor’s favorite, the death of Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) in the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing, a short, sharp murder that does pay off Turturro’s memorable “Look into your heart!” begging earlier in the movie but remains a bit too pat for my taste.
So, again, my list is not exhaustive—but it is correct. I’ve seen most of the films on typical “Best Gangster Movies” lists—but there’s a reason two Francis Ford Coppola movies and one Martin Scorsese movie wind up topping virtually all of them. Sure, it’s the cinematography, the dialogue, and the acting—but really, it’s the deaths. That’s the real greaseball shit.
5. Sonny Corleone, in The Godfather (1972, Coppola)
You knew the first Godfather’s biggest hothead was going to get his—but perhaps not in such grand fashion. This is also known as the Jones Beach Causeway scene: a clockwork-staged, bullet-ridden, Bonnie and Clyde–style killing involving a symphony of colluding mobsters and municipal highway infrastructure (that tollbooth operator who drops a coin so he can duck!). James Caan does some fine bullet-shaking acting in this scene.
4. Fredo Corleone, in The Godfather, Part II (1974, Coppola)
We all remember the end of Godfather II for one death and one death only: that of Michael’s bumbling, mostly harmless but traitorous brother Fredo, played by John Cazale. This movie-closing scene pays off a prior ultra-quotable line: Michael’s “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.” But the scene is just so moving in and of itself—and so profoundly sad, as Michael watches from the shore as his lovable older sibling is offed in a fishing boat while saying a Hail Mary.
3. Tommy DeVito, in Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese)
This basement-based, intentionally disgraceful killing of the movie’s biggest pain in the ass (Joe Pesci) comes freighted with surprising pathos: He’s being killed the day he was scheduled to be made. Tommy’s death is memorable not only for its shocking yet inevitable efficiency. It’s also, in Scorsese’s most French New Wave–indebted movie, bravura filmmaking: Shot from above, Tommy’s slumped body splays across a cold, hard tile floor, the blood gradually forming a kind of afterlife thought bubble next to his head.
2. Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo and Capt. Mark McCluskey, in The Godfather (1972, Coppola)
This scene is a masterpiece of pure tension, fortified by your awareness that young Michael Corleone—new to the family business, arranging a summit with (and secret hit on) the drug kingpin and crooked cop who masterminded a hit on his father—is kind of blowing the plan. It takes Michael too long to find the gun behind the men’s room toilet tank, and he doesn’t “come out blasting” as instructed. In a master stroke, Coppola—just before Michael gathers his force of will—heightens the tension by having an elevated train rumble by next to the restaurant: a reflection of the chorus of voices screaming in his head before Michael finally plugs the two richly deserving jerks.
1. Billy Batts, in Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese)
The killing of made man Batts (Frank Vincent) in the hours just after his homecoming-from-prison party is explosive and twisted (I’ve never heard Donovan’s 1969 hit “Atlantis” the same way since). Also protracted—Batts doesn’t die right away, surviving a ride in Henry Hill’s trunk and a meal at Tommy DeVito’s mother’s house. Even after they slaughter him for good, we endure both a grisly burial scene and an exhumation of Batts’ rotting corpse later in the film. But I rank the killing of Batts first mostly because it pays off a quote that has become (even more than the deathless “How am I funny?” scene) the most immortal mobster meme of the past quarter-century: Batts’ line, to Joe Pesci’s Tommy just before he is beat into a pulp, “Now go home and get yer fuckin’ shinebox!” Beloved most especially by former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, this line is now pop-culture shorthand for snarky, comically aggressive male-on-male disrespect, and Batts’ torturous trunk-based demise is (dis)proportionate recompense.
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